The Webcomic Overlook #52: Erfworld
In Tad Williams’ The War of the Flowers, protagonist Theo Vilmos is the singer for a modern day rock band. After discovering his uncle’s book, he is transported to a world inhabited by fairies, trolls, and other mystical creatures. Understandably, Theo is disoriented, but at the same time he’s awed by the fantastic new sights in this magical realm.
Mr. Williams is hardly the only author to write about a person from present day who suddenly finds themselves in a fantasy land. There’s Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series, J. V. Jones’ The Barbed Coil, and John Norman’s Gor series. There aren’t many other examples beyond the ones you find in juvenile fantasy novels and fanfiction … at least, not enough for Wikipedia to rank it as one of the major subgenres of fantasy literature. Is this because a modern day protagonist in a fantasy world is far too much an exercise in escapism, even for the kind of reader who regularly reads books with covers featuring fearsome dragons, heroic knights, and damsels in loose-fitting gowns? Or perhaps because we have a sneaky suspicion that the hero is a Mary Sue of the author?
In a way, though, sticking a modern hero in a strange, distant world hews closer to traditional speculative fiction. Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle all featured then modern-day heroes voyaging to highly exotic locales, like, say, an underground cavern filled with dinosaurs. Really, is this so very wrong? Since J.R.R. Tolkien spread his influence on the literary world, modern day fantasy fiction writers seem obsessed with writing novels that mimic fictional historical narratives. The peasant heroes must be products of their time, immune to the realm’s wondrous charms.
And yet, almost all introduce a naive young hero, a handy device to introduce several of the world’s high concept ideas to the reader. The more accurate the hero gets to being a product of his time, the more the author distance himself from the reader. It gets to the point where authors almost always portray the hero to believe the stereotype that women are weak and reserved, and then witness an ass-kicking warrior female only to conclude, “Hey, chicks are our equal after all!” some 500 years before women were granted the right to vote. Characters written in this fashion really are no different than time travelers, dimension hoppers, and wardrobe travelers who share more modern mores.
Which brings us to the subject of today’s Webcomic Overlook, Rob Balder and Jamie Noguchi’s Erfworld … or, as it’s better known, “The One Comic on the Giantitp.com site That’s Not Order of the Stick.”
Stuck in a dead end job at Kinko’s and generally dissatisfied with life, amateur role-playing game designer, webcomic writer, and greasy basement dweller Parson Gotti finds himself whisked away into a far off land. (Remember when I said these types of characters were probably Mary Sues of the writers? Well… let’s hope this isn’t the case here.) Regaled for his warmongering experience (which, he’s embarrassed to admit, is solely limited to pen and paper), He is hailed “The Perfect Warlord” and comes under the services of the vertically challenged Lord Stanley. Armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of turn-based strategy games and a chestplate decorated in hamster-themed regalia, Parson must direct Stanley’s force in a battle between good and evil… and he might not actually be on the good side. Will Parson ever find his way home, or is he really just a … fat guy, stuck in RPG?
Erfworld is a strange place. At times, we encounter familiar looking fantasy tropes, such as dragons, elves, and magic users. The purely Tolkienesque atmosphere is shattered, though, by several references to pop culture and the modern world. Lord Stanley, for example, is often seen wearing a bowling shirt and rides into battle wearing KISS make-up. His rival, Prince Ansom, dons an armor similar to the jumpsuit worn by Eval Kneivel. Vampires seem to take their mannerisms from the Fonz. Long range communication is achieved through magic books, but the output looks like a chat log.
Rampantly silly? Yes. Astute observers (and people with no lives) may notice, though, that the character types are pretty true to the ones generated in RPGs. Players typically can’t help but inject character traits that are completely incongruous with the barebones medieval setting. It gets worse when players are allowed to downloaded pictures for their avatars. I, for example, once created a swordswoman who resembled a sexy Carmen Sandiego and spouted lines from the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” at her victims. I have a feeling she’s fit right at home in Erfworld.
The resemblance to a tabletop RPG doesn’t stop there. Armies must wait their turn before moving. Their upkeep must be paid by the castle treasury. These laws of movement and troop costs are immutable, woven into the very tapestry of Erfworld itself. When Parson tries to press the advantage by suggesting that the army go against the nature of the rules, he meets resistance. Even language is restricted by some sort of universal algorithm. When Parson tries to swear, for example, his offending words are “boop”ed out.
So if Erfworld is an RPG, who created it? That mystery looms over the entire comic and is yet unanswered. Maybe it was written by a child? First, there’s the censorship thing. And then there’s the inability to pronounce “R”‘s properly. For example, dragons are called “dwagons,” and Goblin Knob, “Gobwin Knob.” It also probably means that “Erfworld” means “Earthworld.” (Inspired by Will Smith’s celebrated enunciation on ID4, perhaps?) This gets rather annoying, by the way, but Balder is at least consistent throughout. Less annoying are the whimsical names for magical disciplines, such as “Croakamancy” (hint: replace “croak” with “necro”) and “Mathamancy” (which is sort of like clairvoyance, but more closely tied with probability).
I should point out, by the way, that despite the simple, colorful aesthetic and the childlike world, Erfworld is probably not a comic you’d want to share with kids younger than 10. The comic contains some risque moments, most of which involve Stanley’s sexy yet top-heavy (and not in a good way) Chief Croakamancer, Wanda Firebaugh. The comic includes a torture scene that verges on erotic — think the scene between the jailer and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. Also, there’s a scene where Wanda, clad only in a flimsy kimono, must help Parson by, ahem, distracting Stanley in the most seductive way possible.
Parson is familiar with the basic RPG mechanics of Erfworld. He does play around with this sort of thing in free time, after all. Yet the system is foreign enough that he has to wing it. This puts him at odds with his boss, Stanley, who had expected “The Perfect Warlord” to be someone who was keenly aware with everything. For the first time in his life, Parson has to rely on other people, such as magicians, hippies, and even the enemy.
The story’s major weak point is its protagonist. Like Gemberling from the similarly themed Adult Swim show Fat Guy Stuck In Internet (which I obscurely alluded to in an earlier reference that I’m pretty sure ZERO of you readers got), Parson starts the story as unhygienic, arrogant, and highly unlikable. He’s very much like the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons. The subsequent story doesn’t do much to rectify the situation. The situation placing Parson on the side of the villains, in fact, initially intrigues him, since evil units were more fun to play.
Still, we root for him.
Perhaps it’s some sort of quasi-nationalist sentiment for us to pull for the guy from our world. Hey, he may be a smelly greaseball, but he’s one of ours! How dare you make threats on his life and jerk him around? Friggin’ Commies.
There’s also a certain charm about clueless guys who’ve lost everything that made them think they were all that and watch them as they start again from the bottom. And there’s no lower point than being promoted as the “Chosen One” on the side of the bad guys at the very point where they’re on the verge of being completely wiped out. It’s the kind of story that has fascinated audiences since the beginning of time, when the Greeks were infusing their tragedies with the pairing concepts of hubris and catharsis.
Besides, for all his faults, Parson is among the more interesting characters in Erfworld. A lot of Erfworld‘s denizens are quite bland. And a majority of those milquetoasts are the good guys. When the story catches up on the doings of Prince Ansom and the Royal Crown Coalition, who represent the invading force determined to squash the villainy of Stanley once and for all, my mind tends to tune out. They’re just a bunch of one-dimensional guys in goofy costumes. No other redeeming values whatsoever. At times, they’re supposed to function as the comedy relief, but they’re severely lacking in the first part. Perhaps that’s the point. Maybe it’s what Balder is trying to say. The good guys are never as interesting as the bad guys, right? Still, it’s not good theater.
Now, this may be tantamount to heresy, but Jamie Noguchi’s art strongly reminds me of the works of French comic book artist, Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius). I refer mainly to the fanciful designs, which make the dwagons look soft and weightless while a rock formation that looks like the members of KISS looks almost magical. The action scenes are uncluttered, conveying movement and serenity at the same time. However, I didn’t like all of the artistic decisions. Take the character designs, for example. I spent way too much time wondering how their tiny necks could possibly support the weight of their huge, melon-like heads.
Overall, Erfworld is a highly worthwhile read. The mystery behind the RPG nature of Erfworld sustained most of my interest. Even better, though, is how the story is genuinely unpredictable. There seems to be no set ending on the horizon for either side. Solutions that look like they will lead to victory keep getting subverted at every turn, with neither side gaining the upper hand at any point. How will Erfworld end?
Finally, I must point out that choosing Parson, an outsider, was an inspired choice. He knows that there’s more to this world than some grand battle between good and evil. Who else could possibly appreciate the world on a purely strategic level?
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)